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Page One Asks the Unthinkable: Can the New York Times Survive in the Digital World?

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DAVID CARR PAGE ONE

Tweet this: could the New York Times go out of business? That's the question nervously circled by Page One, Andrew Rossi's riveting new documentary (due to christen The Film Society of Lincoln Center's new Eleanor Bunin Munroe theater June 17). It's a brave new news world out there of tweets, blogs, aggregators. On the other side of the aisle, print outlets across the country are tottering, while the Grey Lady herself has long been hemorrhaging advertising and lately axed staff in its newsroom. Yet to judge by Page One, the Times remains a vital institution driven by a group of tough-minded journos determined to shed light on crucial stories. Even when the story, as uncovered by their own Media Desk, is them.

Rossi, who found his way to filmmaking via Yale and law school, gained unprecedented access to the frenetic corridors of the Times as it battles to survive the ongoing digital revolution. The culture of the great Grey Lady has always felt off limits to civilians, so Rossi offers a certain frisson in his capture of reporters' cross-cubicle debates, their tenacious jockeying for on-the-record quotes, and the twice-daily meetings to determine the makeup of page one.

The main course is salted with commentary from such observers as the New Yorker's David Remnick, Gawker's Nick Denton, WikLeaks's Julian Assange, the Nation's Katrina van den Heuvel, and The Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington. The guys manning the media desk, among them demanding editor Bruce Hedlam and upstart media blogger Brian Stelter, are a macho, rolled-up-shirt-sleeves crew, it should be said. Just about hijacking the show is frog-voices veteran media reporter David Carr, an unlikely but charismatic spokesman for the paper of record, who by his own admission was a single parent on welfare and former crack addict. Watching him suss out the truth by prodding reluctant sources and cutting through the B.S. and canned responses reinforces your faith in the old-school journalism now in jeopardy. And that the reporters on the Times's ramped-up Media Desk are assessing the viability of their own employer lends the film a pleasing self-reflexiveness and post-modern tang.

I recently sat down with Rossi to discuss, among other topics, whether our society, lost in the digital din, cares about hard facts and truth. Warning to followers of Kim Kardashian: there's mention of Claude Levy-Strauss ahead.

How did you convince the powers at the Times to give you such amazing access?

Andrew Rossi: At its core the film is observatory, almost literary documentary-style filmmaking. So it doesn't really have an agenda and is not trying to be satirical. It's just trying to give viewers a front-row seat to see what goes on inside an institution which has as its brand promise original, boots-on-the-ground reporting all over the world. When I spoke to [Editor-in-Chief] Bill Keller he said he's really proud of what his writers do and would like the world to see it.

How did Page One originate?

AR: I started talking about it with David Carr in the beginning of 2009. That's right in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 and a lot of smart people were saying that in the digital revolution there may have to be some dead bodies and if that has to be he New York Times, so be it. For me that felt like a very curious position to take and it seemed to me that the time was right for people to see what goes on in an institution like this. Was it a bloated, archaic process in which journalists were wasting time? Or were editors and writers collaborating to really truth-squad information and curating all that into a product of value.

So when you started filming, you didn't know what you were going to get?

AR: I wasn't sure. No promises were made to anybody. The Times had no editorial control over the film or the right to edit anything out.

Given your somewhat slim resume, it's rather amazing they had confidence in you.

AR: I wonder if it's more they had confidence in themselves. It the story was unvarnished they felt they would be comfortable with whatever that was.

You were an associate producer on Jehane Noujaim's wonderful Control Room, which to my mind was a politically angled film because it kind of sanitized Al Jazeera. Do you believe in "activist" documentary-making in the style of Charles Ferguson's Inside Job?

AR: That's a really interesting question. The way my movie is composed is really a fusion of those two approaches: the verite in Control Room; and the polemical, taut style of storytelling in Inside Job. The tradition I aspire to is observatory journalism. It's almost literary.

Why literary?

AR: Because if the movie can take the prerogative to go off on a tangent and explore a theme that is important to buttress a broader understanding of where the media is going, that's a device that's more often found in a New Yorker piece. Not to sound pretentious! It's like that sort of new journalism where you can do a profile of Frank Sinatra and go off for a page on his assistant or Southern California. My co-producer Kate Novack [also wife and co-writer] and I are great admirers of Robert McKee who wrote the book Story.

Oh, that madman.

AR: I know not everybody loves him. His concept of the hero's journey is very effective. We tried to apply to our documentary a sort of narrative structure that would be suitable for a feature.

What's the thru-line?

AR: The thru-line is David Carr. He has the ability to tap into not just what's happening in media, but a broader cultural moment about people feeling disconnected from this technological utopia we're supposed to be living in.

Talking at one point about Twitter, Carr says, What could anyone find interesting in this cacaphony of shortburst communication? And then became a fan.

AR: And so am I. I'm totally a fan of Twitter and use it multiple times a day.

Why did you choose to focus your film on Carr?

AR: He's gone through this textured life.

"Textured," talk about euphemisms!

AR: He's struggled with drug addiction. He's like a Virgil for people, a guide through the digital maze, because he speaks in very down-to-earth terms. Every time you look online there's some new platform you're supposed to be paying attention to. I think David has this ability to filter through all that and analogize to other things in life. He's also not afraid to curse people out. He embodies the footwork and old style virtues of journalism.

He was a somewhat surprise central figure in your film. The Timesman is usually perceived as all-American, squeaky-clean, a Turner Catledge or Bill Keller. While the ravages of his life really show on Carr. Did you worry some people might be turned off?

AR: I think that sometimes a documentary is given life by characters who are unexpected. I've always felt that Carr has the sort of emotional breadth of a cinematic figure who could support a film. And given that he's so contrary to the image of a conventional Timesman, from the get go he gets our attention.

I was struck by your film's form. It's not linear, but collage-like.

AR: That goes back to my literary analogy. I love talking about this! I love Claude-Levy Strauss, a French anthropologist and post-modern thinker I studied at Yale as intellectual history. I look at storytelling both in the McKee sense of the hero's journey, but also in the Levy-Strauss sense of bricolage, which is that the bricoleur goes out and gathers twigs and puts together a sculpture of some sort. I see myself both as a filmmaker in the classical sense telling a story like a genre film about a hero's journey, but also a bricoleur trying to gather arguments.

What's the deal with the Media Desk's macho vibe?

AR: There are 14 journalists on the Media Desk. Two are women. Unfortunately both declined to participate in the film after repeated entreaties on my part. That said, Susan Chira is there, the foreign desk editor; Jill Abramson in the page one meetings; Katrina Van den Heuvel; and of course Arianna.

What drew you to filmmaking? It's such a dicey profession compared to lawyering at Skaddon Arp?

AR: My trajectory is that I'm the child of Italian immigrants. My parents wanted me to have a stable job and a craft. I went to law school and practiced for a couple of years because that seemed like a great way to pay off some student loans. But I always wanted to go into film. Then around 2001 digital technology advanced to the point where you could purchase a camera for a couple of thousand dollars and have the tools to make a film. I left my job and made my first film.

How do you feel about Page One opening the Film Society of Lincoln Center's new state-of-the-art theater?

AR: I think it's amazing. It's the first time in recent memory that a new screen is opening in Manhattan and it's very fitting for this film, which is about the perils of digitization and the benefits of traditional media, to play in a traditional theatrical release [it will screen at the Angelika and Lincoln Center starting June 17 and go wide across the country July 1].

After making this film do you have any prognosis for the future of the Times and traditional journalism?

AR: I hope this film provokes an examination among viewers about the state of journalism and whether it matters to them that there are lots of perils to institutions like the Times. The tagline for the film -- "Consider the source" -- is relevant on so many levels. Consider the source when you read something online or indeed in the pages of the Times -- and when you see stories that are tweeted out and sort of amplified virtually. Oftentimes the germ of those stories come from a reporting source like the Times.

I get the sense that we're living in a culture that is antithetical in many ways to the values embodied in the Times. The thoughtfulness, the laboriousness of getting at the truth. Twitter is the enemy of contemplation, Bill Keller has said. Given the forces aligned against it, can the Times flourish?

AR: I think that in the end, places that have as their mandate the original reporting fundamental to making people informed citizens will win out. People will not allow themselves to become ignorant. Excuse me for the cliché, but I just don't think that's American.

That's an optimistic view. Given how they sometimes vote, Americans often fail to perceive their own self interest. Print looks to me like a very endangered world.

AR: But the Times has been evolving into a multimedia entity. I mean, their website is really breathtaking.

Yes, but consider that the sites that are thriving -- and HuffPost is a prime example -- offer a point of view, a political perspective. You trust them because you trust where they're coming from. And people gravitate to that partly because the world has grown so complicated.

AR: Did you like the film or did you -- ?

I loved the film! I had one reservation. I didn't think you were hard enough on Judith Miller. You just let her say, that was the information we had at the time.

AR: I think she sort of hangs herself in that interview. She says, I was just reporting what my sources were telling me. The BBC reporter interviewing her says, but that just makes you a stenographer.

On a macro level the movie encourages people to become more empowered consumers of news and information. It's ultimately not just enough that it came from the Times. Everyone's got the ability to find documents online and not just accept information as if it were a thunderbolt coming down from the mountain from Zeus. The Times realizes that too. This goes back to your initial question about how I, as someone relatively young without an extensive resume, was able to get the access. Part of it is that the Times is trying to be more transparent in the wake of the Judith Miller and Jason Blair scandals.

After a career at a posh law firm, is it worth it to you to live without money and -- ?

AR: Without a doubt. I love what I do. I find it a joyous act to be behind a camera and follows these stories and put them together in the edit room.

I imagine you were an an exception among your Yale classmates, who probably went on to work in hedge funds.

AR: Yes, but they're great investors.